Be it a song about a fearless Dalit mother's assertion, or a poem that paints a poignant aspiration for self respect — each of his writings strived for equality, humanity and radical change.

An image of Kalekuri PrasadImage credit: Tangirala Sony
Features Tribute Monday, October 25, 2021 - 11:01

Oh high caste ministers, sitting in positions of power!
Will you guarantee me, if I give birth to boys again, that you won't kill them?
Will not stop even if I die, will not stop even I'm killed — I'm a heroic mother — I'm a Dalit mother —  I will give birth to swords besides sons and hide them from you.

— Written by Kalekuri Prasad, sung by Dappu Prakash.

I was Shambhuka in the Treta Yuga
Twenty two years ago, my name was Kanchikacherla Kotesu
My place of birth is Kilvenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda.

I'm not a victim, I'm an immortal
If you can bury me in the middle of the city
I'll bloom as the bamboo grove that sings the melody of life.
Print my corpse as this nation's cover, I'll spread as a beautiful future into the pages of history. Invite me into your hearts I'll become a tussle of conflagrations
And rise again and again in this land.

— Written by Kalekuri Prasad, translated by Kuffir Nalgundwar.

These fierce yet poignant lines that shook Telugu literature three decades ago were penned by Kalekuri Prasad, Dalit poet-writer, journalist, and translator, whose writings and activism have inspired the Dalit movement in the Telugu states. Kalekuri stands out as one of the strongest voices that Telugu soil’s Dalit-Bahujan movements have ever had. He was a prolific writer and translator, a striking orator, and earned a huge following during his time.

Kalekuri was born in a Mala (Dalit) family in Kanchikacherla of Krishna district On October 25, 1962, to Lalita Sarojini and Srinivas Rao, who were teachers in a missionary school. According to Kalekuri, an atrocity committed on a Dalit youth during his childhood — "Kanchikacherla Kotesu" — over an intercaste relationship, was a major incident that impacted his life. It perhaps haunted him to shape himself into a poet and a meaningful activist. In his famous poems, For a fistful of self respect and Untouchable Love he refers to the incident.

His primary and high school education was completed in Eluru and Kanchikacherla, before he went to Guntur Andhra Christian College (AC College) in the early 1980's, where his life took a major turn. By the time of the Karamchedu Dalit massacre in 1985, he was a member of Peoples' War Group (PWG) and was associated with cultural-literary organisations such as Jana Natya Mandali and Viplava Rachayitala Sangam (Virasam). However, later, citing ideological differences with the Left and for other personal reasons, he came out of Virasam and the Left movement, only to dedicate himself to the Dalit movement and literature.

Be it a song about a fearless Dalit mother's assertion, or a poem that paints a poignant aspiration for self respect, or a translation that sounds like an original — each of his writings strived for equality, humanity and radical change.

Kalekuri’s poem and prose, both were versatile. It is no exaggeration to state that he touched different aspects of life as a storyteller. In one context, Kalekuri asks aspiring Dalit writers to "write and write more prolifically." He says, "We should write neither in their standards nor for their approval, but in our language with our standards. We should write as if each heart is engulfed in the flames of fight...we should write like a procession passing through the hearts of this land."

It was in 1989 when he started off his career as a journalist with Telugu daily Andhrabhoomi before leaving to work for Nigha, Ekalavya, Bahujana Keratalu and several other publications besides engaging in translation of English literature into Telugu. As an activist, writer and journalist, Kalekuri witnessed a cascade of atrocities on Dalits and lower castes throughout his life. Perhaps that resulted in his literary works shedding tears for Dalits, assertive expressions and revolutionary aspirations.

Kalekuri used to write under pen names such as Yuvaka, Koteshu, Sangamithra and Kavana, Literary critics and his contemporaries in journalistic circles recall his nuanced writing skills and gritty personality.

Image: Sridhar Namadi

His works include Dalit Literature (1962-2003), Dalita Kiranalu, Dalit movement - Dalit literary movement, Dalita Hakkula Nigha, Andhra Pradesh Dalits, and For a fistful of self respect (a compilation of his articles). Recently his friends from Premalekha Prachuranalu brought out an anthology of poems — 33 his own and 17 translated — under the title Untouchable Love (Antaraani Prema). There is also speculation that some of his works were uncredited.

Image: Sridhar Namadi

He has translated Swamidharma Theertha's The Menace of Hindu Imperialism (1998), Arundhati Roy’s The End of Imagination (1998) and God of small things, Kishore Shanthabai Kale's All Against Odds, and one of the works of holocaust survivor Primo Levi's, along with several essays of Vandana Shiva, Utsa Patnaik, Krishna Kumar, Palagummi Sainath, KS Chalam and several others works through Prajashakti Publications, besides Mahashwetha Devi and Basheer's short stories and Khaleel Zibran's poetry.

Be it the nuanced articulation of communalism, weaving of poetry by loading Dalit agression and hope, or the effortless and smooth translation works — Kalekuri was a prolific writer. Friends and colleagues of Kalekuri remember him as a wind that changed the direction of Dalit literature.

His literary ushers were not limited to the canvas of activism but have also influenced Telugu cinema. His songs Bhumiki Pachani Rangesinattu (Like the Earth was painted green) where he dreamt of liberation of the land from feudals/landlords, and Karma Bhumilo pusina o puvva (Oh flower that blossomed in the land of karma) where he cried for victims of sexual and dowry violence, are still famous songs that take us through the revolutionary movement that was roaring through 1990s in the erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh.

Kalekuri maintained a distinction in whatever subject he chose to advocate through his writings, be it the commentary on the Srikakulam armed rebellion, or ideological positions on Karamchedu-Tsunduru Dalit massacres. He stood firmly with the Madiga Dandora movement  which sought categerisation of Scheduled Castes (SC), and against Babri demolition, and presented his thoughts on caste discrimination at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in the presence of the then president of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

While admiration and cherishing of his intellectual contributions comes through engagement with his arguments, there is some talk about his alcoholism that seems fuelled by semi truths and rumours. Kalekuri's caste identity has played a cruel role in how he is described — what he is seen as, and what he is not.

Even if a Dalit intellectual succumbed to alcohol addiction, it certainly needs to be seen through a lens that recongises it as a result of the everyday marginalisation and agony, which however triggers a dual brunt on their family, mainly Dalit women. It's not to symbolise Dalit intellectuality but to acknowledge the reality that needs collective introspection.

Kalekuri has inspired generations that are dreaming of a just society free from tears and oppression. During his last days, he lived in an Ambedkar Bhavan (community hall) in Ongole, far away from the chaos of intellectual murmurs, but passed away silently like a nobody, on May 17, 2013. 

(Charan Teja covers the two Telugu states and writes predominantly on caste, politics and forest-environmental rights. Views expressed are the author's own.)

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